Monday, 17 August 2009

Adventures in Uzbekistan Part 3

I had expected the trip to Tashkent to involve:
1. Short early morning flight to 70kms from Tashkent
2. One hour taxi ride to Tashkent hotel (plus extra time at border a possibility)

What we had actually experienced was:
1. Massive queue to get to plane at 6.30am in Almaty airport
2. Short flight to Shymkent in Southern Kazakhstan
3. Three and a half hour mar
athon taxi ride in non-air conditioned old audi
4. Two and a half hour customs clearance, bureaucratic palava
5. Long walk along the donkey track into Uzbekistan (not actually that long, but worth including as it was quite extraordinary)
5. Two hour drive in nice new Toyota van to hotel in Tashkent

By the time we got to the Hotel Poytaht in Tashkent we were all, frankly, buggered. So to be met by a grizzled old guide wearing one of those war reporter-type camouflage flak jacket waistcoat things was quite distressing. He was keen to take us to a restaurant for lunch. 

"Listen, mate" I told him, in my patchy Russian, "I have been around the block a bit, and if you take us to some tourist, crappy, overpriced restaurant I am going to be very disappointed. Please take us to a good local joint for a normal meal,"
"Of course, of course, no problem, we go to eat by the river," he assured me. 
"This restaurant you recommend, what kind of food does it serve?" I asked
"Oh, Uzbek food and International food," he said. 
The alarm bells were ringing. The term "International food", in my experience of trying to find some authentic local cuisine, means that you are actually heading for the place least likely in a city to be serving the real McCoy. 
"You know, we really don't want to eat international food," I told him, "My parents, they have travelled a lot. They will not get sick if they eat in a local restaurant. I really hope that you are not taking us to a tourist trap," I said, hoping that my requests did not fall on deaf ears. 

They did. We drove up to a more-or-less empty beer garden with tired, old waitresses in beer-sponsored aprons serving rank, badly-cooked shashlik (meat kebabs) that had been stored in an ancient old fridge full of food and flies outside (I saw this because I was running around with the baby, but most bus loads of tourists would be unaware this small detail), some luke warm noodles in a weak soup and the ubiquitous central asian round bread (not freshly baked as you would expect from a really good establishment). 

Considering that none of us really wanted to be on a tour with anyone, preferring the thought of an afternoon relaxing by the pool, followed by a small foray into town to find some supper and a beer later, the ambience was lacking. Added to which, the guide had produced our bill for the tour which was 25% higher than I had agreed before travelling to Uzbekistan, so I had to spend most of the time on the phone to the organiser explaining that it is not normal to include a one-year-old child as a full-fare paying adult in a tour bill. 

"But you did not tell me she is baby," he argued.
"I think I did, and I also think I faxed you the photo page of her passport at least twice, so you might have noticed," I replied.  (My daughter's passport was issued when she was 10 days old as we had to make an emergency flight home to see a dying relative, so there really is no doubt that she is extremely small).

Anyway, we came to an agreement in the end, with the organiser pleading with me, 
"But I make no profit for this tour".
"Yeah, right," I thought. 
What I actually said was, "I am so sorry about that, but thank you so much for sorting this out." 

After the guide had taken us to see a memorial to a large earthquake, I broke it to him that we were not really up for a full city tour, and it might be better if we all got some rest now. Realising that this meant he got the rest of the day off, he immediately cheered up and we went a very direct route back to the hotel. 

On the way, I asked him what the main industry in Uzbekistan was. 
"Cotton," he said. 
"Really, I didn't know that," I said. 
"Yes, cotton is our biggest export. But now is problem," he explained, "Some countries, they do not want to buy our cotton, because they say we use child labour. For picking," he explained. 
"Oh dear, that is a problem," I said. "But do people use child labour to pick cotton in Uzbekistan," I asked.
"Of course we do," he said, "All our workers are in Russia. If we do not use the children, we cannot pick the crop." 

The minibus became quieter and we drove the streets of Tashkent back to our hotel in peace and tranquility, the baby asleep on my lap. 

Picture: My father listening politely to our guide 

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